Using computers a child's play for the blind

A MAJOR achievement in making computers user friendly to the blind has been recently accomplished by a team of students led by Dr. R. Kalyanakrishnan of the Computer Sciences department at the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai. This feat closely follows the team's success in making transliteration of a text in any Indian language and some foreign languages possible. This by itself was a major achievement as it meant that any Indian could read a text in his mother tongue. Not knowing English was thus not a handicap to read the text. The initiative then did not cater to the special needs of the handicapped.

The recent work addresses the lacuna particularly for the blind who till now could not exploit the full potential of the computer either for mundane things or for any specialised project. "Our approach was to make the linguistic processing in Indian languages to address the problem of syllabi sound information. In all the other softwares the letter is represented based on the shape and not on syllabi. Sound reproduction in any language therefore became possible with our approach," said Dr. Kalyanakrishnan.

Understanding the sound produced by the machine is easy when the user knows the language and needs some training when using other languages. The highlight of the entire exercise is that the text that is specially produced for the blind has few links to other sites. This ensures that understanding the text by the blind is very simple. "It is designed to have more of text and less of links. This was found necessary as the recall of the links by the blind becomes difficult when there are many," he said. Provision exists for the visually handicapped people to navigate even when many links exist as the software is designed to reiterate the links numerically as and when required.

Another interesting feature is the ability to vary the speed at which the text is read. "The user initially would prefer the computer to speak at a slow pace but once he becomes accustomed to the machine sound the speed can be increased," he said. The choice to vary the speed comes handy especially when the language used is alien. The software is also equipped to allow the user to visualise the screen as it tells the user the layout of the text with blank spaces between lines. Even minute details like coma and hyphen are read out to the reader.

An excellent tool for the visually handicapped, but how does Dr. Kalyanakrishnan intend making it available to the needy? "We have been working for more than a decade to make the computer easily usable by anybody not conversant with English. This venture to focus on the blind is just an extension of the project. All along we have been working with no financial support from any organisation. And I do not intend commercialising it as the very purpose of the project will be lost. It will go beyond the reach of the common man if commercialised," he said.

Dr. Kalyanakrishnan is determined to offer the software free for any user both in India and beyond the shores. Already over 300 persons have benefited by his benevolence. Vidya Vriksha, a Chennai based NGO has been given the software and it has taken up the task of training people to use the software.

Training the trainer is also part of its programme and nearly 80 persons have been trained so far in the last one and half years. Thanks to the initiative taken by Dr. Kalyanakrishnan and his students, visually handicapped people using computers may soon become a common sight.

R. Prasad

in Chennai